I felt a presence.
My heavy eyes pried themselves open. I heard a deep rumbling voice.
"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are stronger at the broken places."
I looked to the ghost table and chair beside my bed. I sighed. Gypsy was having another midnight visitor over.
He was chuckling as he held one end of a corn cob so Gypsy could nibble the other end. He looked over to me. He shook his head.
"I've seen rocks that were lighter sleepers than you, kid."
He tapped my open laptop on his ghost table. "I've been reading your FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE. It's good. What to know how I know it is?"
"Of course, sir."
"All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened. I believe your McCord. In fact, I plan to go to New Orleans after this visit and see if I can't find Meilori's."
"Tell Sam I sent you."
"You're a hoot, kid."
"I'm definitely something," I half-yawned and winced at the pain of my mangled finger when I covered my mouth.
"Forget your personal pain, kid. We are all damned from the start, and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get damned hurt, use it --
don't cheat with it."
"I try my best, sir."
"It shows in your writing, kid."
His eyes seemed to sink deep into his face, and he laid the corn cob down. "Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another."
Gypsy cocked her head, then rubbed it against the big chest in front of her. Hemingway absently stroked behind her ears. His face became lost amidst inner shadows.
"I didn't come here for Gypsy ... for you ... not even for me."
He paused for me to ask, "Who did you come for, sir?"
"I came for her."
"Marlene," he said, whispering the name as if it were a benediction.
"I met her while sailing across the Atlantic on the Ile de France in 1934."
He smiled as if his lips were an open wound. "I called her 'Kraut,' and she called me ... what else? Papa."
The smile died an ugly death. "For a dime movie admission, she could break any man's heart. She could have broken mine for a nickel ... and I would have brought the nickel."
His smile became real as he looked at me. "She's been feeling forgotten, Roland. But you changed all that with your posts."
He looked off into the dark of distant days. "Marlene should know better. Even should the day come when her films are forgotten, she herself will not be."
His eyes gleamed with pride and love. "Her courageous defiance of the Nazi leadership of her own homeland, her beloved 'heimat,' and her calm dismissal of the death sentence on her head while she performed for the U.S. troops on the front lines ...
it all set a standard for principle and patriotism that still inspires today."
"It inspires me, sir."
He nodded that great head of his. "And that means more than even I can say."
Hemingway slowly stoked Gypsy's purring head. "The most important work she ever did in her eyes was what she did for the G.I.'s those three years."
His glittering eyes held mine. "Those years were her passion. She did it for herself. It was personal, not the celebrated Hollywood passion created to sell tickets and to bolster the Dietrich image."
He smiled a sad, wistful smile. "She was a proud German, and she fought for her homeland the only way she knew how."
His smile twisted into something painful to see. "And now, she feels as if her finest hour has been forgotten, lost in the dying of decades."
He tapped my laptop. "Until you. You put spring back into her step. And for that, Roland, I'm going to teach you how to write."
He waved a lazy hand. "Don't worry, Roland. This is me. I won't steal much of your precious sleep time. It's a short lesson. One sentence actually."
"Yes, as a writer ... to win you have to lose."
He nodded, extending his forefinger. "One : lose long sentences. The reader gets lost in the tangle of adverbs. Say more by writing less."
Hemingway put out a second finger. "Two : lose long first paragraphs. A block of prose dulls the eyes of the reader. I was challenged once by a critic too dumb to know better to tell a good story in one paragraph. I did it in one sentence."
He drummed his fingers on the desk. ""For sale : baby shoes, never used."
"Wow. That really says it all."
"Shut him up fast enough. Not that I know everything about writing. Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done.”
Hemingway thoughtfully stroked his moustache. “You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across, not just to depict life, or criticize it, but to actually make it alive.”
He shook his head angrily. “Charlie’s (Scribner’s) ridiculing of my daily word count was because he did not understand me or writing well nor could know how happy one felt to have put down properly 422 words as you wanted them to be."
Hemingway's lined face beamed. "And days of 1200 or 2700 were something that made you happier than you could believe. Since I found that 400 to 600 well done was a pace I could hold much better was always happy with that number. But if I only had 320 I felt good.”
He blinked for a moment. "Where was I anyway, Roland? Oh, I remember."
He put out three fingers. "Three : lose the stale prose and insert the fresh. Motion doesn't mean action. Be vigorous in your life, in your prose."
I said, "Like instead of 'he pushed the boulder up the hill' use 'he sweated the boulder to the top.'"
He grunted. "Good but no cigar."
"I couldn't smoke ghost cigars anyway."
"You have spirit, kid. Show any more like that, and you may just end up one."
I have never gotten into trouble by something I didn't say ... so I said nothing.
Hemingway snapped out a fourth finger. "Four : Lose the negative. Write what something is ... not what something isn't. Keep in mind, Roland, the reader will mentally hold onto the first image you give him."
He straightened in his chair. "Using 'painless' still inserts the thought of pain into your reader's mind. 'Inexpensive' is out. 'Economical' is in. 'Error-free' is in leper robes. 'Perfect' is wearing a tux."
He held out an open palm. "Five : Lose the shit."
Hemingway laughed in a deep rumble that merged with the thunder overhead. "I told Fitz ...."
"F. Scott Fitzgerald, kid. And yes, Zelda was just as beautiful and loony as you think. But I told Fitz that for every page of masterpiece I wrote, I wrote 99 of pure shit."
He pounded his open palm on the ghost desk. "So, Roland, try to put the shit in the wastebasket."
Hemingway hooked a thumb with his other forefinger. "And lastly, lose the copy. Keep the original."
"Meaning, Roland, do what you've already been doing. Sure you're impressed with Zelazny, Chandler, Simak, and me. But you write in your own style ... influenced by us, sure, but not mirror-images of us."
Hemingway blew out his cheeks. "You'll always be just a second-class 'them.' But you have the makings to be a first-class you."
He rubbed his bearded chin meditatively. "And there's your lesson, Roland."
"Thanks, Mr. Hemingway."
"Didn't do it for you, kid. I did it for Marlene."
Once again the name was spoken softly like a sad blessing. Hemingway disappeared into the darkness before the sound of it was gone.